02:34, September 16 34 0 theguardian.com

2017-09-16 02:34:03
UK legal claims grow over exposure at work to toxic diesel fumes

Legal claims over exposure to diesel exhaust fumes at work are growing as unions warn toxic air in the workplace is a ticking time bomb on a par with asbestos.

Royal Mail and at least one local authority are among major employers who are being sued over their alleged failure to protect staff from the damaging health effects of diesel pollution from vehicles. More cases are lined up, according to lawyers and unions involved in supporting workers.

Dan Shears, health and safety director for the GMB union, said: “We strongly believe it is a major problem. It needs a test case and then there will be an increase in claims. It’s almost like the early days of asbestos.

“There are potentially lots of people who have unnecessarily suffered premature death who may have been affected by industrial exposure. We are now with diesel in the same place we were with asbestos in the 1930s.”

Five years ago the International Agency for Research in Cancer (IARC) classified diesel engine exhaust emissions as carcinogenic to humans. That classification, combined with growing awareness over the damaging effects of diesel air pollution, the revelations in the VW emissions scandal, and research that shows some diesel cars have been emitting about six times more NOx on the road than is allowed in lab tests, has led to increasing numbers of employees considering action.

In one case Parcelforce Worldwide, part of Royal Mail Group Limited, is being sued for negligence for allegedly breaching health and safety regulations designed to protect employees from exposure to hazardous substances. Under the Control of Substance Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH), all employers have a legal duty to prevent exposure to substances that can cause health problems.

The claimant is a Parcelforce employee who worked at a major depot where he says he was exposed daily to diesel exhaust pollution for eight hours a shift. He says the exposure led him to develop asthma, and provides medical evidence to support his claim.

“Throughout the course of his employment the claimant was exposed to, ingested and breathed diesel exhaust fumes and particulate and other combustion gases from numerous vehicles passing through the out gate … the claimant’s face, skin and clothing would become contaminated with diesel particulates. Any drinks left by the booth window would develop a black film very quickly,” the claim states.

The claimant, who is 47, said no protection was provided by his employers in the form of ventilation in his booth or protective equipment. With the backing of the Communication Workers Union he is taking action against Royal Mail, whom he said failed to advise him of the dangers of exposure to diesel fumes, failed to carry out a risk assessment of where he worked, failed to monitor the air quality at all until 2015, and failed to take action to protect him.

His lawyer, Phillip Gower of Simpson Millar, said: “There is certainly an increase in awareness about the dangers of exposure to environmental fumes … we have seen an increase in the number of enquiries from clients who have been exposed to diesel fumes, car exhaust fumes and pollution at work … anyone exposed to excessive amounts of diesel fumes at work does have a potential claim.”

A Royal Mail Group spokesperson said: “Royal Mail Group can confirm that a Parcelforce Worldwide employee has submitted a claim alleging that diesel fumes have contributed to his asthma. Royal Mail Group has denied liability and is robustly defending this claim.

“We are a responsible employer and we take the security, health and safety of our employees working throughout our organisation very seriously.”

Workplaces where staff are at increased risk include garages, bus depots, ferries and warehouses.

Christchurch Borough council is being sued over alleged failure to protect a tractor driver from toxic diesel fumes which were said to be leaking into his cab for more than two years after it was left with holes in the floor panels after a service.

The claimant drove the tractor for two and a half years. He claims that when it was eventually tested, it was found that exhaust fumes including carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide fumes were entering the cab. The legal case states that the claimant’s symptoms were caused and exacerbated by the breach of health regulations and negligence of his employer.

Judith Plumley, head of community and leisure at Christchurch and East Dorset councils, said “We are aware of this case, but due to ongoing legal proceedings we are unable to comment further at this time.”

Britain’s largest trade union, Unite, said exposure to diesel fumes was a ticking time bomb. The union has set up a diesel emissions register so employees can record their exposure to toxic air.

A study by the union has revealed that affected workers are reporting short term health effects which include wheezing, respiratory problems, eye irritation, nausea and headache. Long term problems recorded include reduced lung capacity, breathlessness and asthma.

Unite’s assistant general secretary for transport Diana Holland said: “If it can be proved that the health of workers has been damaged due to exposure to diesel fumes, Unite will consider taking legal action on behalf of our members.”